Encroachments on our Ancient Language

Recently I was flipping through the Old Statistical Account, written in the 1790s. I was wondering whether a particular individual in Inveran, situated in what I knew was a Gaelic-speaking parish, would have understood English or not. The parish accounts revealed the beginning of a mighty cultural transformation, from one tongue to another.

The minister of Tain did a detailed analysis. He found that the ‘inhabitants of the town speak the English, and also the Gaelic or Erse. Both languages are preached in the church. Few of the older people, in the country part of the parish, understand the English language; but the children are now … taught to read English.’ In rural Rogart, those with English ‘speak it grammatically, though with the accent peculiar to most of the Northern Highlanders.’ So, in the 1790s townspeople were probably bilingual, older country-people were probably monoglot Gaelic speakers, and younger country-people were taught English at school.

Lt Col Sutherland in Gaidhlig

Lieutenant Colonel Alasdair Sutherland (1743-1822) from Braegrudy, Rogart, is buried underneath this rather ostentatious pillar which details his life in both English and Gaelic. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

The second (or New) Statistical Account was written in the 1830s and 40s. By then Gaelic was still generally spoken in rural parishes and more and more people could also read it: in Kincardine each family owned a Gaelic Bible and Psalm-book. The minister of Lairg even thought that because they could read, the people now spoke their own language ‘more correctly.’

English was gaining ground. Young people learned at school but a ‘considerable proportion’ of Rogart’s population acquired the language ‘from books, and occasional conversation with educated persons’. They were therefore ‘more easily intelligible to an Englishman than the dialect spoken by the Lowland Scotch’ because their English had only ‘a degree of mountain accent and Celtic idiom’. Some English speakers had settled in the area, but they had not had any effect. These shepherds had moved from the Lowlands as the Sutherland Estate developed commercial sheep rearing operations and could speak only English. Lacking Gaelic must have meant a rather lonely existence. Their families had assimilated and all spoke Gaelic.

Despite the extension of English, the ministers of Lairg and Kincardine felt Gaelic had not lost ground as it was used in everyday and in religious life. The rural parishes which bucked this trend were Creich, where English was used by the majority, and Edderton, where they spoke ‘English less or more perfectly’. It is probably no coincidence that these parishes are close to the towns of Dornoch and Tain.

Intrigued by this change, yesterday evening I took a turn about the town of Dornoch, then drove to Pittentrail before cycling towards Lairg. I wanted to find evidence of Gaelic. There wasn’t much. Most was tokenistic, or connected with names of streets, towns or houses. There was a nice little collection of materials in the Dornoch Bookshop and a poster for traditional music events. When and how did this dissolution of Gaelic happen?

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The towns acted as catalysts for language change. In Dornoch this was dated from about 1810 and in Golspie from the 1790s. It was ascribed to the influx of ‘persons from the south country’ and to the increase in formal education, first in Gaelic then in English. The minister of Dornoch noted this was as much due to Gaelic schools as to English ones. Indeed in the town of Tain it was rare to find a person under the age of thirty who could speak Gaelic.

Tain was a complex parish, or perhaps the minister took a more sophisticated approach to analysing it. The parish was equally divided with Gaelic spoken in the country and in the fishing village of Inver while the town and the ‘higher ranks’ were English speakers. The parish of Dornoch has a similar town/country make-up and it would have been interesting to know if the situation was similar there.

 Language in Tain parish town Country/Inver village
Gaelic only 66 96
English only 100 36

The minister’s numbers indicate most people were bilingual, but he did warn this was not really the case. Presumably most people had a dominant language and could get by in the other.

In the 1840s Gaelic was still the preferred language of the people. Apart from in the town of Tain they used it for communicating with each other and they preferred attending Gaelic church services. However the minister of Dornoch could see what was coming. He expected that the ‘encroachments on our ancient language’ meant that in sixty or seventy years, that is by about 1900, it would be extinct.

He wasn’t far wrong.



Old Statistical Account and New Statistical Account of Scotland. Parishes of Creich, Dornoch, Edderton, Golspie, Kincardine, Lairg, Rogart, Tain. http://stataccscot.edina.ac.uk/static/statacc/dist/home


‘Seed-beds for sedition’: The Kincardine Covenanter Part I

In 1675 a sixty one year old man from Fearn was apprehended and thrown into the tolbooth at Nairn. His crime was not theft, assault or murder. He was accused of holding secret Christian meetings. This was not the first time Thomas Ross had got into trouble for his faith.

Thomas was born in about 1614 in Fearn, Easter Ross. His father was the well-to-do George Ross of Nether Pitkerrie. He probably attended the local parish school then studied at Marischal College, Aberdeen. It was a popular college for those with Presbyterian sympathies, although his younger son studied at Kings. We do know that at some point he married Lilias Dunbar and the couple had two boys: Alexander and George.

Dunbeath, Braemore, Dirlot 006

Seventeenth-century farmland would have been organised in runrig rather than these open fields, but the fertility of the land near Nether Pitkerrie is clear today. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ritchie

Thomas Ross had decided on a career in the church. He was passionate about his faith and developed a reputation for holiness so, on the surface, seems well-suited to the profession. However, the mid-seventeenth century was not an easy time for ministers. Church and state were closely tied and there was an ongoing struggle between Episcopalians and Presbyterians. The former system involved a hierarchy of ministers, bishops and archbishops whereas in the latter, church government was by consensus of ministers and elders through a system of church courts. Thomas was firmly in the Presbyterian camp and this was to cause him problems.

We know nothing about Thomas before 1655. He may have started his career as a schoolteacher as so many aspiring ministers did. By August 1655 he was a married man aged about forty with a young family. He had replaced the previous minister of Kincardine who was removed due to ‘malignancy’! Kincardine parish stretches along much of the south bank of the Dornoch Firth, a stretch of good arable fringing a hilly hinterland. Although he was a family man, well settled in a respectable and congenial profession in his local area, life was not to continue smoothly for Thomas Ross. In 1661 the ‘Drunken Parliament’ annulled all Presbyterian legislation and Episcopacy was restored. The next year the Parliament declared that all parishes which had been filled since 1649 were now vacant. The ministers were required to reapply to their bishop and patron by 20th September 1662. If Thomas did this he would automatically be reinstated, however to do so was to recognise the new order. While most in the north and east of Scotland were content to conform, Thomas joined the ranks of those in the Covenanter hot-spots of Galloway and Ayrshire. His refusal meant that in 1663 he was deprived of his parish. Outed ministers were not meant to resettle within twenty miles of their former charge, but Thomas may have negotiated a relaxation of this rule as he and Lilias moved to the nearby Royal Burgh of Tain. If the boys were still young at this point the advantage was that they were closer to the town’s well-respected school. They doubtless also had friends there.

Nov - Easter Ross 014

Parish of Kincardine, Sutherland, where Thomas Ross enjoyed a short-lived peaceful family life. Looking towards today’s village of Ardgay. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ritchie.

Like many of the ousted ministers and their congregations, Thomas was a passionate believer. We don’t know how he made a living in Tain but it is quite possible that in his free time he held secret religious meetings for locals, perhaps including some members of his former congregation. This was dangerous. Conventicles were outlawed by the government who believed they were ‘seed-beds for sedition’ and fines were imposed on those who did not attend their parish church. Over the next few years political tension erupted in violence in southwest Scotland. Troops were deployed to impose anti-Covenanter legislation, a ragtag army of Covenanters was defeated near Edinburgh and the government brutally repressed the movement. By 1669 government policy became more conciliatory. It was announced that outed ministers who had lived quietly since, could return if their parishes were still vacant. However Kincardine was not vacant. When Thomas left the previous minister, the one dismissed for ‘malignancy’, had been restored. Instead the Rosses with at least one servant, Jane Taylor, sailed south to Morayshire. There he was involved in ‘preaching the Gospel with no small measure of success’, presumably in conventicles. Thomas not only ministered to those who shared his faith but was influential in the conversion of several. His converts included Margaret, the wife of Hugh Rose, 14th baron of Kilravock. Having such an influential disciple may have protected him and the other ‘faithful messengers of the Cross’ in their activities. But this protection was not to last.
To be continued…

Hew Scott, Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae Vol. 7 (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1928)
Donald Beaton, Some Noted Ministers of the Northern Highlands (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1929, 1985)
J.H.S. Burleigh, A Church History of Scotland (London: Oxford University Press, 1960)